I was about 14 or 15 years old, browsing in my local public library, when I first came across the work of Samuel Beckett. Calder and Boyars, the publishers, had brought out a uniform edition of his novels, following his being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. The books all featured a striking portrait photograph of Beckett on the cover, and I was captivated by it. Who was this man? I immediately wanted to know more about him.
I must admit I didn’t make much headway, initially, with his late trilogy of novels, but found his earlier work, like “More Pricks than Kicks” and “Murphy” more accessible. More than that, they were actually funny! Here was a man with a tragic vision of life, writing about the absurdity of existence – and yet expressing it as a comedy that was simultaneously grim and heroic. Flann O’Brien was having a surge of popularity at about the same time, and I began to identify the type of humour used by both these writers – absurd, stoical, zany, yet heroic – as being particularly “Irish”. I discovered that both Beckett and Flann O’Brien idolised James Joyce, and it was through that discovery that I first encountered the wonderful stories of “Dubliners” and the even more wonderful world of “Ulysses”.
My poem “Irish Stout” was inspired by the simple (yet complex!) experience of drinking a can of Murphy’s Stout. The last couple of lines might perplex readers, but any fan of Flann O’Brien will recognise the line from O’Brien’s comic masterpiece “At Swim Two Birds”.
‘IRISH Stout’, the can proclaims,
ushering presences, illustrious names:
O’Brien, Behan, Beckett, Joyce . . .
Prodigies of prosody, vibrant of voice.
Poured into glass, blackness pervades,
biding its time, as whiteness cascades.
In tenebrous torrents, surging flow,
climactic currents of chiaroscuro,
shapes can be seen; their beckoning shades.
You drink in the darkness, in your dream,
sipping and surfing the endless stream.
You invoke the spirits, hear echoing calls;
see candle-lit shadows dance on the walls.
From disordered whispers and mutterings, you scan:
‘A pint of plain is your only man!’